Artist, author,and curator Judith K. Brodsky was visiting the Princeton home of Helena Bienstock when she discovered Bienstock’s ceramic vessels with a sparkly metallic glaze. “I was so impressed with what she was doing,” says Brodsky. “A lot of her inspiration comes from her concern for the environment, and she expresses it through clay.”
Thinking about climate change and artists who shared her concerns, Brodsky started formulating ideas for “Earth | Fire | Water | Ice | Debris,” on view at the Arts Council of Princeton March 17 through May 5, with a panel discussion and opening reception on Saturday, March 17, from 5 to 8 p.m.
“Artists have moved out of the attic and into the world,” says Brodsky. The five artists in the exhibit—Bienstock, photographer Martha Vaughn, painter Diane Burko, video and installation artist Anita Glesta, and Hopewell-based artist Susan Hockaday—have turned their attention to the environment, in some cases using unexpected mediums.
Bienstock, who has had a career teaching school children in New York and New Jersey, has been working in ceramics since the early 1970s. An active supporter of cultural organizations in New York and New Jersey, including the Arts Council of Princeton — its Helena Bienstock Clay Studio is named in her honor — Bienstock had never before exhibited the ceramic sculpture.
“Her work relates to the dying coral reefs,” says Brodsky. “Her vessels resemble dead coral. She is using these shapes to alert people to the beauty of coral, even when it’s dead.”
Coral reefs are endangered, the vessels remind us. Home to 25 percent of all marine life on the planet, coral reefs have survived tens of thousands of years, but many may not be able to survive the havoc wrought by humankind.
Bienstock has also created earth-like vessels with sea-green barnacle-like crusting, and a series of pine cone shapes, with glazes referring to the California fires and the devastation of evergreen forests.
Her ceramic pine cones are reminders of the scent of forest pine needles that according to some studies has been shown to offer health benefits. But as temperatures warm, pine bark beetles are increasing in frequency, devastating the forests. As grim as the news is, Bienstock’s vessels convey beauty.
“Artists are using their powerful visual skills to make us aware of the issues in the world around us as well as the beauty,” says Brodsky. “Clay is one of the first materials artists used. Not only does it hold beauty, but clay vessels held water, relating to human survival.”
Susan Hockaday’s images combine natural elements, suchs as fig leaves, purple monkshood flowers, crab claws, and shells, along with plastic debris—beach toys, netting, plastic rope. Even her sea shells are packed into plastic “clam shells.” All this is photographed against a background of color-saturated papers, with brilliantly hued results — she is creating beauty out of refuse. It is the first time this work will be shown, and afterward it will travel to the SOHO20 gallery in Brooklyn.
“Susan has been addressing our experience of nature as we witness its decline through the forces of climate change for many years,” says Brodsky.
When asked about conveying a message about environmental catastrophe with such beauty, Hockaday responds “Ugly? What is ugly about all this?
“Plastic is often designed with great care and is quite beautiful when you stop to look at it,” she points out. “The ugliness is our inability to take charge of ourselves and work to control the processes we have set in motion. The destruction of landscapes, cities, shores, and animal and plant life is certainly stupefying and ugly. So I make something beautiful to draw them in.”
The artist notes that the plastic in her pictures comes from all over the world, “thanks to the ocean currents and our travels.
“I think what has always pulled along me is an awareness of design and harmony in the world around me,” Hockaday continues. “I find it all has the potential for beauty. I am amazed at the beauty in things from tiny to huge, designed or occurring in nature. The interaction between manmade phenomena and all aspects of the natural world — it feels natural to me to arrange these things to make the point that these realms are in a destructive collision now.”
Hockaday, who has summered on Cape Breton Island with her family for nearly half a century, says she has always picked things up on hikes and walks along beaches: natural objects, old tools, or parts of things, her choice “based on a quick take of their design qualities.” About 10 years ago, she did a series of photographs on decaying ships and decided to pair those pictures with clear plastic trash in photograms. “I began to really notice trash and got very interested in it,” she says. “And I picked it up wherever I was if something about it caught my eye.”
After visiting a friend of her son who gathered trash on the beaches of Long Island, she went home with four large black bags of trash. “Very good stuff, very useful!”
She began to think about the design and function of plastic and did a lot of reading. She thought about the relationship of nature to trash.
Plastic has been designed and produced to serve millions of purposes, using vast amounts of resources, Hockaday points out. “The side affects of this process, and the plastic itself, lead to terrible unanticipated changes all over the planet.
“Plastics affect the rhythms of nature, cycles of growth, the connections between one cycle and another, and lead to the death of plants and animals,” Hockaday says, pointing to the invasion of tiny particles into the biosphere that lead to the destruction of coasts, forests, fields, mountainsides, even cities. “There are gases, heated oceans, drought.
“Plastic is the flag that directs our attention. We are not used to seeing it all tangled in a beautiful way with leaves and flowers. These compositions pose a question: what is going on here?”
Princeton-based Martha Vaughn was introduced to Brodsky by Bienstock. “Her photographs are about treasuring and preserving the look of nature and finding aesthetic patterns,” says Brodsky. “It’s nice to think about the enjoyment of the natural world, not only impending disaster. Martha’s reflections become abstract as she finds the essence.”
A world traveler (she accompanied her husband, a tennis racket designer, on trips), Vaughn published a book of her photographs in 2014, “Of Time and Place,” and a year ago, along with her daughter, Barbara, also a photographer, was featured in “Double Vision” at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid Gallery.
After taking over her daughter’s darkroom when Barbara went to college in the 1970s, Vaughn took classes at the International Center of Photography in New York, the Maine Photographic Workshop, and through the Ansel Adams workshop. Her work is in the collections of the New Jersey State Museum, Princeton University, and others.
Brooklyn-based Anita Glesta’s videos of brilliantly colored fish swimming through water will be projected on the Arts Council terrace and across the street. “Watershed” was previously featured at the New Museum Ideas City Festival in New York and on the surface of the National Theater in London, facing the Thames. It was also seen in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in 2017 as an immersive video on the streets, in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
Philadelphia-based artist Diane Burko’s paintings carry the 19th-century landscape tradition into the 21st century. She paints extreme landscapes, including the world’s largest ice fields in Greenland, Antarctica, Argentina’s Patagonia, Alaska, and the Northern Atlantic. Burko, a speaker on climate change at scientific conferences, will participate in a gallery talk and book signing, along with Scientific American opinion editor Michael Lemonick on Saturday, April 21, at 1 p.m.
Burko’s paintings in “Earth | Fire | Water | Ice | Debris,” presented in a grid, have a crackle effect. “The medium becomes a metaphor for what is happening to the polar ice caps,” says Brodsky. “It’s a complicated process and resembles the crust of the earth, the oceans, ice, and sea foam.”
Brodsky, 84, who holds leadership positions in the art world and is a Rutgers professor emerita, arts patron, and advocate for feminist art, says “I’ve been involved with thinking about art and science and the environment since grad school (at Tyler School of Art). I’ve long been interested in artists who get inspiration from abstract forms in nature, from plant cells to genes.”
The founder of the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions at Rutgers created a suite of 15 lithographs in 1996, inspired during her commute from Princeton, “The Meadowlands Strike Back,” a narrative sequence with an apocalyptic theme using images from the northern New Jersey industrial wastelands of oil refineries, air and seaports, and highways. It was exhibited at the Rhode Island School of Design at the time. Her latest series, “The Twenty Most Important Scientific Questions of the 21st Century,” is a response to a New York Times list from 2003 and offers her take on what these questions, and their answers, could look like.
All of these works, as well as what’s in “Earth l Fire l Water l Ice l Debris,” conveys its environmental message through beauty. “The need for aesthetics is part of human nature,” says Brodsky. “To make something beautiful is innate. Beauty shows us there is hope.”
Earth | Fire | Water | Ice | Debris, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Opens Saturday, March 17, with a panel discussion, 5 to 6 p.m., and reception, 6 to 8 p.m. On view Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until May 5. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.